Saturday, March 03, 2007

Kenya's Social Darwinist Academic Champs

By Onyango Oloo in the Kenyan Capital

Absolute Delirium are the two words that best describe the pandemonium of self and collective congratulation that has been raging across Kenya throughout this week as principals and head teachers jostle to preen, prattle and prance beating their puffed up chests as they outline how their schools battled to make it to the top 100 schools during last year’s high school final examinations. Students who posted stellar performances are justifiably hoisted sky high by proud parents, school-mates and friends.

It is a veritable academic Olympics in progress, I kid you not, with the gold medal egghead teen winners swooning in the blare of media adulation.

Watching NTV on Wednesday night (February 28, 2007) I was transfixed as images of Loreto ya Limuru’s red, Starehe’s blue and red, Aga Khan ya Mombasa’s white, assorted burgundies, greens and all hues in between provided a collage of youthful voices and agile bodies ululating, dancing and screaming in joy, and should we add, relief.


A Meru relative of mine just called me a couple of days ago confirming that he too, had surpassed the cut off points at the KCSE national examinations.

Today, I am not going to waste words celebrating with the winners and super star candidates.


Instead, I want to empathize with the TOP 100 LOSERS- both schools and individual students.


How does it feel, for instance, to be head teacher of one of the worst performing schools?


How does it feel to be the one student in the country who ended up dead last?


How does it feel to come from the province, the district, the division, the location or the village which produced the longest string of Fs in Kenya last year?


Just like everyone else, I admire and I am inspired by academic diligence, youthful hard work, focus and discipline. Kudos to the straight A students, congratulations to all those teachers who prepared their students so well.


At the same time, I am saddened by this cut throat social darwinism in our pyramid of an education system.


Is this the way our young people should be prepared for adulthood and its many challenges in the work-place and society at large?


That the prize one should aim for is number one, often regardless of how one gets to that top spot?


Should our society really be one of WINNERS and LOSERS?


Given our fierce competitive world-beating track record in track and field, many of my readers may be actually wincing, wondering what I am going on and on and on about.

This winner takes all tradition is by no means confined to Kenya. In the Far East, the Indian sub-continent and even in Canada among families with origins in China, especially South Korea, India and some of the other Asian countries, this is often taken to extremes. There are numerous reports of very, very bright students committing suicide because they “only scored 98%” marring an otherwise perfect score! There are incidents of irate parents shunning and coming close to disowning such brilliant minds for the same reason.


What does it then say for those who got a string of Bs or even Cs in comparison?

How about the Ds the Es the Fs and the Gs???


The day before the day before yesterday, I opted to take a leisurely stroll over the foot bridge near the Nairobi railway station- you know the one behind the Kenya Polytechnic, the one that commences at the Vasco da Gama village. Going up the time-worn wooden steps I was going past a shuffling, hurrying and dashing human wave of workers trudging their way to Kencom, Tusker, Gill House and other matatu stops along Ronald Ngala, Tom Mboya and other streets.


Many of their countenances were panel beaten with exhaustion; many furrowed brows spoke eloquently of the daily frustrations of being a casual, a kibaruwa, a low paid toiler making factory owners rich while they could not earn enough to take public transport right outside their work-place. It did not matter whether it was a female or a male face, the story written was the same-not really looking forward to another working day.

As they zipped past me, I kept wondering how many of them had been Straight A primary school pupils; kept musing how many topped their districts in the form four exams, and how many of the older ones had flying colours in all the principals they had taken at the “A” levels of yore.


How many had to take up a job, any job after years of gruelling tarmacking?

How many had to quit school to support their younger siblings orphaned by HIV/AIDS?

How many simply could not afford the exorbitant fees demanded by institutions of higher learning?

It is obscene that in Kenya we laud social darwnism, a concept that is now seen as one of the modern corner stones for class-based discrimination.

Is our educational system really a race which guarantees the survival of the fittest?


The last time I checked, financially well-endowed schools in the heartland of Nairobi City were being lumped together with ramshackle ones stuck in the impoverished back waters of rural Kenya. Students from poor and struggling families in town and country were assumed to have the same equality of opportunity as those ones from middle and upper middle class families.

It is an open secret that some of the so called academic power-houses use very cynical and often unscrupulous methods to reinforce their schools with the best and brightest.

And even if we take this “success” on its own terms, at what price does it come?

Should the number one objective of our learning youth be the quest to scale the top at all costs?

Given the nature of our cut throat vicious pyramid curriculum, how many unconventional geniuses are we tossing by the wayside?


If we were to judge three IT biz whizs by Kenyan academic standards, we would certify them BIG LOSERS. I am referring to Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Apple’s Steve Jobs and Dell’s founder Michael. They ALL DROPPED OUT of college.

How many Kenyan Michael Jacksons and Stevie Wonders out there are wallowing in penury and obscurity because the Kenyan educational system does not recognize budding musical and other creative braniacs?

Apart from our world beating track and field stars (who are largely self- made) how far do our systems (not just the schools) identify and tap sports prowess?

Is it any wonder that Kenya is under-producing the Drogbas, E’toos, Essiens and Adebayors of the football pitch?

The other day I was talking to one of Kenya’s finest ever boxers (at the campus level) who is today a respected architect and lecturer at one of the country’s universities. He recalled a very sad tale of bumping into former Kenya world boxing and Olympic champion Steve Muchoki- a national legend and hero in the seventies and eighties-eking out a life of extreme poverty to the point where he could hardly afford bus fare.

Pugilists like Conjestina and Zarika in the contemporary period have detailed the urban poverty they endure in the slums of Nairobi even as they win accolade after accolade.

The unspoken story in all this, is that if it is the superstars who are saying this, what about the rest of the boxers out there?

A cousin to my spouse is on the Kenyan Tae Kwon Do team. Yet he remains jobless three years after finishing high school.

One could go on and on, but one will not…


Do our schools instill political consciousness among our country’s youth?

How many of them know the roles of people like Abdilatif Abdalla, Wanjiru Kihoro, Micere Mugo, James Orengo, Chelagat Mutai and George Rubik in the struggle for democracy in Kenya?

How many of them know the biography of the patriotic policeman known as Muindi Mbingu?

How many of them could contextualize the Nandi Resistance and its legendary hero Koitalel arap Samoei in the story of the birth of modern Kenya?

How many of our youth can analyze the reasons why George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003?


How many can see the connection between the Asian Flu (and I am NOT talking about avian influenza) of 1997 and the insane speculation currently underway at the Nairobi Stock Exchange?

And do not tell me that it is too early. I could do that when I was in Form Two over thirty years ago- and again no thanks to the school curriculum.


Are our schools training our learning youth to be critical thinkers or just automatons who can pass exams?

In fairness to our system, let me also concede that Canadian youth right up to university level fare more or less the same way.

When I was working with a social justice group based at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec between 2001 and 2005 I was often saddened to see students who had just written their final exams rush to sell, give away or throw away their text books- and it did not matter whether they were engineers, literature, medical or environmental science graduates. They were saying in effect that the ONLY reason they read their books in the first place, was to pass the exams that would give them their degrees.

I remember when I was part of a hiring committee with a certain Toronto-based housing non-profit during the late nineties being taken aback when a student who claimed to have a Masters in Political Science and was applying for a Zimbabwe placement with a human rights organization giving us BLANK STARES when we asked her to share with us her understanding of the term “social justice”.

I also read a piece over three years ago by an American commentator that in the US the situation is sometimes often worse than what we have in Kenya- with academic staff pressurized to give a passing grade to as many undergraduates regardless of the rigor of their academic performance- because campuses are seen as cash cows through which a conveyor belt populated by kids (especially of the rich) pass through.

My guru-I am talking about that dead German with the initials KM- had proposed a “polytechnical” approach to education. By which he envisaged well-rounded students who would be as comfortable with the so called “arts” as they would be with the “sciences”; students who could be as comfortable in the basket ball court as they would be in the physics lab; students who spoke a multiplicity of local and international languages; and of course, politically conscious students. Now, again, these things are NOT unheard of. The second highest female KCSE student last year and the top one in the whole of Eastern province not only hails from a humble peasant family- she also displayed a slew of more than a dozen extra-curricular certificates to demonstrate her all rounded skills and talents.

Back to the TOP LOSERS. What does the government and society do with such presumed under achievers?


And speaking of winners and losers, already some of our brand new post-KCSE winners are already losers in the sense that close to sixty thousand candidates who qualified for university education will NOT be admitted because there is simply no room for them. And you wonder what the braniacs in the education ministry like Saitoti and Kilemi Mwiria have been doing in terms of ANTICIPATING this surge.

Almost everyday at our Kenya Social Forum offices here in Nairobi, a young person walks in armed with a sheaf of his or her academic qualifications. Many have second degrees and a string of diplomas and other credentials. Most of them have been tarmacking for at least one year. In the run up to the World Social Forum, hundreds of them registered as VOLUNTEERS in the hope that such high profile participation would add to their employability after the global event.

So, has our system succeeded in creating a nation of academic winners who end up thriving in real life?

Please read the pieces on the same subject by Lucy Oriang’ and Tom Mshindi respectively…

Onyango Oloo

Nairobi, Kenya

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